Mohanapriyan Thavarajah tells The Untold Story of India in Angkor Wat

Mohanapriyan Thavarajah is a young talented male Bharatanatyam artiste and choreographer based in Singapore. He is the principal dancer, resident choreographer and dance faculty member with Apsaras Arts Dance Company and Academy.

He was born in a coastal town in the eastern province of Batticaloa in Sri Lanka, where the singing fishes in the rivers are the pride of the region. Batticaloa is known metaphorically as “Meen Paadum Then Nadu”  - “The land of the Mellifluous Singing fish”. He hails from a traditional goldsmith family.

Inspired by his father S Thavarajah, an award winning community leader, and his mother Vijayasundari Thavarajah, a deeply spiritual person, his childhood was  deeply rooted in religious and cultural practices, and also learning Bharatanatyam, Carnatic Vocal, and attending Araneri (The path of Dharma) classes.

Priyan says that until his high school - languages, aesthetic studies, religion were compulsory subjects and were part of the curriculum. "Even though all these components are part of every child in Lanka in their upbringing or education system, art was never considered to be choice for a career. My passion together with the support of my parents led me to explore the art of dance without any expectations of where it would lead me."

He joined the Kalai Kaviri College of fine Arts in Trichy India, an affiliate of Bharathidasan University in 2005.  "Angkor Wat from the lens of a dancer" was his thesis submitted for his MPhil degree in 2016.

In this interview he talks about his new book: Temple Dance of Apsaras - A dancer's view on Angkor Wat published by Apsaras Arts Ltd. Video of launch: https://youtu.be/zTlUVAPHFi8

At what point in your dancing journey did your performances start reflecting the influence that India has had on other Asian countries. What role did Apsaras Arts play in this?

It was only after I joined Apsaras Arts, Singapore in 2012 my love towards South East Asian culture developed and started to reflect in my approach to dance. The name of the company itself reflects the vision of the founders who embraced the uniqueness of Southeast Asian aesthetic and culture. The term Apsaras literally means celestial nymphs or heavenly dancers, who are commonly found in South East Asia as well. They are referred in the Natyasastra, epics, Puranas and have taken physical forms in temple sculptures. Hindu practices and classical dance forms are intertwined with each other. As Hinduism spread across South East Asia, the different classical dance forms have started to blossom in different regions like Cambodia, Thailand, Indonesia. The classical dance forms are dedicated to the gods in the temples. Singapore being situated in close proximity to these regions it provided a big scope for Apsara Arts to explore cross cultural collaborations, which resulted in beautiful works which are very informative and educative even beyond the grandeur of the presentations.

How is this book your own journey of evolution as a dancer, trying to get to the bottom of how art forms influence cultures and are also themselves influenced in the process?

The inspiration for this book is from the grand scale production Angkor - An Untold story in 2013 by Apsaras Arts. This production narrates the story of an artisan from Cholanadu (South India) who were inspired to build the temple Angkor Wat dedicated to Lord Vishnu. We made a field trip to Angkor to commence the creative process of the work. During the trip I had the opportunity to visit Angkor Wat, watch the performance of Apsara dance, interact with dancers and teachers of the Royal Ballet of Cambodia, visit the Phnom Penh museum, religious sites like mount Kulen and other Angkorian temples. I was immensely inspired by Cambodia’s Heritage, its Arts and religion which is not entirely different from India in its faith and practice. I felt that I’ve strung a common thread among the routes from Srilanka - India- Singapore- Cambodia. As practitioner of the religion and arts I was able to make a connection with every thing I saw resulting in the choreography work that I did for the production Angkor and later to pursue my MPhil on this same topic of Angkor Wat from a Dancers View.

Taking the Natyashastra as the starting point, rather than the influence of Kings, Empires and Commerce, you talk about the spread of Indian dance? Is that how it panned out in reality?

When we look at classical dance forms in India, they originated in the temples as an offering to the deity as part of the daily rituals. The the dancers who were dedicated to dance in the temple were called Devadasis. They were patronised by the ruling Kings of the region. They were exposed in the the scholarship of arts comprising of various components like languages, music, dance, theatre etc. For example in South India the ruling king the great Raja Raja Chola who built the Tanjore Bragadeeshwara temple is celebrated as a great patron of arts and artistes. He employed over400 Devadasis, and gave them remuneration like paddy, land, money and housed them around the temple complex. His rule was considered to be the golden age of arts and culture. We also learn the similar histories during the reign of Suryavarman 11 who built Angkor Wat temple in Cambodia, who had had a similar vision as that of Raja Raja chola in India, of building temples not only for worship but also to nurture the arts. Today the enormous Bas-reliefs of dancing apsaras, Devatas, sculptural depictions from the Ramayana and Mahabharata are the witness to the traces of Indian ideologies adopted and localised by Khmer Royals. Later Jayavarman IV had employed dancers in his court. His vision for the patronage of arts is reflected in the temple Bayon, built by him in the hall of dancers found in this monument.

My reference to Natyasastra in South East Asia is based on Dr Padma Subrahmaniam’s research. In her book “Natyasastra and the unity” she writes that the author of Ramayana Sri Valmiki and the author of the Natyasastra - Bharata were contemporaries dating to 500 BCE. She further says along with Ramayana, Natyasastra would have crossed the ocean. Particularly in Angkor Wat, I saw the depiction of the churning of Milk ocean has carved so elaborately in the eastern, south wing bas-relief gallery. One of the dance-theatre which Bharata has mentioned in Natyasastra is the churning of Milk Ocean (Amrita Madana) and during the churning of milk ocean, there were many treasures manifested and one among them was the ‘Apsaras’.

Is the book focused only on Bharatanatyam? Did you see other dance forms being featured in Cambodia?

The book is not specifically focused on Bharatanatyam but rather finding the similarities of dance traditions of India in Cambodia and how they have been adopted and localised by the Khmers. It is a journey to trace the Indian roots in Cambodia through performing arts with a lens of a dancer.

Why Angkor Wat. It is so interesting that the largest Vishnu temple in the world is among the only ones in a land dedicated to Lord Shiva. How did you research this and what direction did it steer your book? What aspects of the Vaishnavaite tradition influenced the dance and aesthetics of the temple?

Hinduism is the most ancient religion and Vaishnavium has been part of its body. But in Cambodia its so beautiful that Shaivism and Vaishvaism coexist. In mount Kulin ranges, there are thousands of Shivalingas carved in the riverbed of Kbal spean, but also in the same site you may find reclining Vishnu and Brahma in the sandstone relief carvings. It is perhaps by the respective interest of different rulers in different periods of times that led to their vision of building the temples dedicated to the deities like Shiva and Vishnu.

In 10th century Banteay Srei was built by the king Yajnavaraha dedicated to Lord Shiva (Chandarshekara) later in the 12th century. Angkor Wat dedicated to lord Vishnu was built by Suryavarman 11. Angkor Wat was built over 40 years and the kings crowned after Suryavarman continued his visions. The khmer courts were greatly influenced by Brahmin priests who were leading in high positions. There were also another source for the connection between India and Cambodia. There are many inceptions of shlokams in the Khmer temples like Bantey Srei, found in the language of Devanagari which was an ancient Brāhmī script, used in the Indian subcontinent and was developed in ancient India from the 1st to the 4th century CE and in regular use by the 7th century CE.

The steering point for my research was how the Khmers have envisioned the Hindu iconography. For instant, the way the Shivalingas were carved in the flowing river bed and there are many others which have inspired me as a Hindu.

 It took a century for the Chola influence to show in Khmer architecture. What aspects of the sculpture and architecture reflect this influence and how much is indigenous?

I have compared the 10th century south Indian temple architecture of Tanjore Bragadeshwara temple to Bantey Srei(10th Century) and Angkor Wat(12th century) temples in Cambodia. I have referred in the book that how these temple architectures have similar concept of representing the universe and Mount Meru as Gopuram. For instant the Tanjore Brahadeeshwara temple carving of Nataraja with Karaikal Ammaiyar playing symbols, which is so indigenous to Tamil Nadu has been featured in Banteay Srei Temple Gopurams. The lifelike bas-reliefs carvings of gods and goddesses, dancing apsaras are so significant but they are represented in Khmer features. We may see the same concepts but not replicas and all the intricate details have been absorbed beautifully and enhanced with their artistry which is indigenous to their region.

References and connections are made between the Devadasi tradition in India and the Apsaras in Cambodia. As a dancer, how significant is this, considering that the devadasi dance tradition has almost disappeared in India?

Devadasi system in India has totally disappeared after it became a democratic ruling country. Cambodia is still ruled by a king. The Devaraja concept of King as God is very much prevalent.  Suryavarman 11 who built Angkor Wat was called Paramavishnulokan after his demise, after the presiding deity of Angkor Wat. In earlier times, in Cambodia, the young dancers also  dedicated themselves to dance for the temples rituals and were patronised by the kings. Their family was given support for dedicating their daughters to dance. Till this day, the palace in Cambodia has been following the tradition of patronage of dancers who now belong to the Royal Ballet of Cambodia.

Who are the devas and apsaras that feature in your book? What is their connection to India??

Apsaras are the dancing female figurines who are commonly carved in the Angkorian temples. Their connection to India was their hand gestures and postures originally from the Natyashastra and Indian classical dance forms. Devata, the standing divine women represent the Khmer’s Matriarch. The female figurines of dancers and musicians are typical of Indian temple architecture.

How important is it for you to document this knowledge in textual form. You could have stopped at a dance production, but you have explained many things that give us a clue about the range of influence.

I am always fascinated by the Southeast Asian art and culture. The Angkorian temples are special for their heritage and uniqueness and offer not only an oppurtunity for the tremendous study of the culture but also to reflect on the great minds of visionaries like kings and artisans. It is also provides an opportunity learn how we should  trust and believe in our own culture.

Having said that, dance productions might appeal to arts lovers but the book covers topics including religion, art and culture and may interest any reader from any part of world. This book is from the perspective of a proud Asian looking at Cambodia's Angkor Wat from a dancer’s perspective. I am so thankful to have been born in this region to discover many parallels of my culture that has spread across in Southeast Asia beautifully. As a dance practitioner and academic oriented artiste I find research is very important for the artistic pursuits. Travel, exploration, discovery are various means through which you can nurture your love and strong connection towards our art forms. I always believe that artistes are not mere entertainers of the senses but also to also touch the intellect of every spectator.

You talk about the Khmer's worshipping Bharatamuni. What are the aspects of Indian culture that are valuable while learning the dance form. How have the Khmer's lived this ideal?

Conducting prayer before performance is always the tradition of all our Indian dance-theatre practices. In a normal day in a class room, the students starts their training in dance by paying obeisance to the teachers. I was particularly amazed to see the Khmer’s artists reverence for the teachers and art form. Every Thursday, Khmer artists conduct prayers to the teachers and celebrate the eternal guru Bharatamuni who is known as Brot Rishi in Cambodia. It is a profound practice that teaches values of respect and humility which is very important when learning to be an artiste. This is why the Asian cultural is so special to me. Its not just to appreciate and practice but to touch, feel and breath those sensibilities which are intertwined with every one of our lives here.

As a dance practitioner, I have been reading and practicing the text Natyashastra, but there was no physical representation of Bharata Muni and what he looks like? The brilliant Khmer artists have given form to Bharata with five faces. As we know Natya Veda is known as the 5th Veda. It is created from the essence of the four Vedas - Rig, Yajur, Sama, Atharva. So, they imagined the form of Bharatamuni with five faces which is the personification of the fifth Veda which is later known as Natyashastra. Its noteworthy that Dr Padma Subrahmaniam who is the managing trustee of Bharata Ilango Foundation for Asian culture, has commissioned to make a statue for Bharata in Mahabalipuram, Chennai.

Could you briefly describe the 4 chapters: 1. Emergence of Hindu religion in Cambodia, Details of temple symbolism, architecture, and layout (Divakarapanditha), use of Indian language, idea of libraries 2, Bass relief: Hand gestures, usage of Natyashastra, difference between two female figurines, the dancing apsaras and standing Devatas. 4. Practice and application of ritual tradition of dance, comparing devadasis and early Cambodian dancers, churning of the ocean representation, 4. Khmer classical dance of Cambodia and its connection to India.

The book consists of four chapters. The first chapter is a comprehensive study on the emergence of the Hindu religion in Cambodia. It further extends about the details of the temple’s symbolism, architecture and layout. In this chapter, one of the highlights is the Royal Brahmin Guru Diwahara Pandit, who was employed in the court of Suryavarman 11. Because of the connection with Brahmin gurus from India, usage of Indian languages like Sanskrit prevailed in the Khmer courts. Libraries within the temple complex also adding depth to this study.

Chapter 2 discusses the beauty of the bas-reliefs of Angkor Wat. The static positions of the sculptures and hand gestures have been identified to have similarities found in the usage of Natyasastra - dramaturgy for Indian performing Arts. The highlight of this chapter is the difference that has pointed in detail about the two female figurines that are carved in Angkor Wat - the dancing apsaras and standing Devatas.

Chapter 3 explores the Dance Heritage of Cambodia, expanding the lens to look at the practice and application of the ritual tradition in dance, the Dance halls in the temples of south India and Cambodia, comparing the tradition of Devadasis of Tamil Nadu to early Cambodian dancers, patronage for dance by the royals from Chola empire and Khmer empire and finally bringing reference of the birth of Apsaras from for the legend of churning of the milk ocean referred in Natyashastra and sculpted in the west wing bas-relief gallery of Angkor Wat.

Finally, chapter 4 bring insights into the Apsara dance - the Khmer classical dance of Cambodia and its components like the training methods, repertoire, costumes and music.

What are your next plans? Which country are you going to turn your lens to?

I am now focussing on Indonesia, particularly Balinese and Javanese heritage and dance forms and their Indian influences. I have taken this research for my doctoral study thesis.